In a flurry of virtually falling over themselves to praise Saudi Arabia's new ruler, the press has overlooked his disturbing track record
When Salman bin Abdulaziz acceded to the Saudi throne late last month, Western leaders could not have rushed faster to pay him tribute. President Barack Obama even dropped his visit to India to hail the new king, who had been Saudi defence minister and deputy prime minister since 2011 under his predecessor, King Abdullah. The latest visit is from Prince Charles, who last week expressed his alarm at the extent to which young British Muslims were being drawn to extremist organisations.
“Continuity, cohesion and consolidation will be the watchwords,” predicted Ambassador Richard LeBaron, a former longtime State Department and National Security Council official who last served in government as US ambassador to Kuwait. LeBaron said that King Salman will build on the legacy of King Abdullah, which he praised in glowing language.
“One of the things that he [Abdullah] will be remembered for is his honesty, his lack of personal corruption, his devotion to education for both men and women, and his gradual opening of the country,” LeBaron added.
US officials across the spectrum expressed confidence in the new king. James B. Smith, who served as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia between 2009 and 2013, said approvingly: “We know King Salman well… I see no break in the US-Saudi relationship.”
The anti-terror myth
Much has been made in the press of King Salman’s recent “shake-up” of his government, including the sacking of Prince Bandar bin Sultan who headed up the Saudi National Security Council where he crafted the expansionist strategy of financing regional jihadists. In one especially stomach-churning example, King Salman and key appointees in his government were slavishly lauded by NBC News as having “serious terror-fighting credentials.”
In this extraordinary flurry of virtually falling over themselves to find words of praise for Saudi Arabia and its new ruler, the press has overlooked the new king’s disturbing track record.
Last week, a glimpse of King Salman’s questionable history surfaced in the testimony of convicted al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui, who claimed that members of the Saudi royal family provided extensive funding to al-Qaeda throughout the 1990s, including Prince Turki al-Faisal and Prince Bandar. Moussaoui also described “meeting in Saudi Arabia with Salman, then the crown prince, and other Saudi royals while delivering them letters from Osama bin Laden.”
That, however, is a mere fraction of the evidence for King Salman’s support of Islamist militants, which began as far back as the 1980s when the US was coordinating arms, training and funding to Islamist mujahideen networks in Afghanistan to repel the Soviet Union.
From Bosnia to New York
According to former CIA official Bruce Riedel, Salman “oversaw the collection of private funds to support the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s... In the early years of the war – before the US and the Kingdom ramped up their secret financial support for the anti-Soviet insurgency – this private Saudi funding was critical to the war effort. At its peak, Salman was providing $25 million a month to the mujahedeen.”
The Cold War, however, was just the beginning. Salman later played a key role in “raising money for the Bosnian Muslims in the war with Serbia,” recounts Reidel.
In 1992, Salman was appointed by King Fahd to found and head the Saudi High Commission for Aid to Bosnia (SHC), which by 2002 had delivered over $600 million in aid.
But a raid by NATO forces on SHC’s Sarajevo office shortly after 9/11 found a range of terrorist materials, including photographs and detailed maps marking government buildings in Washington, before-and-after photos of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and hand-written notes of meetings with Osama bin Laden. An estimated $41 million of the SHC’s operating funds was missing.
Yet throughout this period, US intelligence was fully aware of Saudi sponsorship of al-Qaeda affiliated militants, but did nothing about it.
‘We know King Salman well’
By 1994, the National Security Agency (NSA) was listening into telephone conversations between members of the Saudi royal family. One NSA official familiar with the intercepts revealed to Pulitzer Prize winner reporter Seymour Hersh that “the intercepts show that the Saudi government, working through Prince Salman [bin Abdul Aziz], contributed millions to charities that, in turn, relayed the money to fundamentalists. ‘We knew that Salman was supporting all of the causes.’”
The NSA intercepts proved, according to the New Yorker, that senior Saudi royals were “channelling hundreds of millions of dollars in what amounts to protection money to fundamentalist groups that wish to overthrow it.” By 1996, the US intelligence community had amassed clear evidence that “Saudi money was supporting Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Yemen, and Central Asia, and throughout the Persian Gulf region.”
Indeed, that year an extensive CIA report on the use of NGOs as fronts for terrorist financing concluded: “We continue to have evidence that even high ranking members of the collecting or monitoring agencies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan – such as the Saudi High Commission [run by then Prince Salman]– are involved in illicit activities, including support for terrorists.”
The following year in May, a report by the French Ministry of Defence’s Office of Military Intelligence found that “the Saudi High Commission, under cover of humanitarian aid, is helping to foster the lasting Islamisation of Bosnia… The successful conclusion of this plan would provide Islamic fundamentalism with a perfectly positioned platform in Europe and would provide cover for members of the bin Laden organisation.”
Lawyers representing the 9/11 victims’ families in a suit against members of the Saudi royal family interviewed an al-Qaeda operative in 2008 who confirmed that then Prince Salman’s SHC had hired him and other known al-Qaeda members during and after the Bosnian conflict, supplying them with cash, weapons and vehicles.
A 28 August, 2003 report of the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, also obtained by the lawyers, references Salman in relation to another NGO, the ‘Third World Relief Agency’ (TRWA) which was used as a conduit to covertly supply weapons to Bosnian fighters during the UN arms embargo. About $350 million went through the charity. The German report confirms that transfers from Salman’s personal funds accounted for “more than half” of TRWA’s deposits.
The lawyers also obtained a heavily redacted top-secret internal report of the US Treasury’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, elaborating on the intelligence behind the blacklisting of two branches of the Saudi-based charity, International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO), as banned terrorist entities. Apart from Bosnia, the IIRO had been linked by intelligence agencies to al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist activity in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Kenya, Chechnya and Albania.
In his book, Sleeping with the Devil, former CIA counter-terrorism officer, Robert Baer revealed that the IIRO had been run “with an iron hand” by then Prince Salman, who “personally approved all important appointments and spending”.
The court papers filed last week in New York for the 9/11 families’ lawyers argue that the SHC’s role in Bosnian arms and training was “especially important to al-Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the US.” Salman’s SHC helped fund “the very al Qaeda camps where the 9/11 hijackers received their training for the attacks,” say the filings, and also financed “the safe haven and facilities in Afghanistan where senior officials of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, planned and coordinated the attacks.” Two lead 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, had fought and trained with al-Qaeda mujahideen in Bosnia in the early 1990s.
Writing in Foreign Policy, neoconservative pundit, David Weinberg rails against Salman in a one-sided op-ed that focuses on evidence for Saudi support for Islamist militants. But Weinberg carefully skirts any mention of the US role in facilitating if not protecting the Saudi support for terrorists.
Not only was the Pentagon aware of the Saudi terror finance funnel; it also actively facilitated their support to Islamist militant networks after the Cold War, in pursuit of short-sighted geostrategic goals.
In an appendix of the report of the official inquiry into the Srebrenica massacre, Dutch intelligence files reviewed by Professor Cees Wiebes of Amsterdam University, showed that in the same period that Saudi Arabia was funnelling arms and money to Bosnian fighters, the Pentagon was airlifting thousands of al-Qaeda mujahideen from Central Asia into Europe, to fight alongside Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs.
Intelligence sources at the time said that the mujahideen were “accompanied by US Special Forces equipped with high-tech communications equipment”. The idea was for the Pentagon to use al-Qaeda linked militants as shock troops “to coordinate and support Bosnian Muslim offensives”.
From 1994 to 2000, US intelligence was also secretly sponsoring the Taliban in its conquest of Afghanistan. Once again, the Saudis were at the forefront of this ill-conceived strategy. The CIA coordinated millions of dollars in funding from Saudi Arabia, along with military aid and training via Pakistan, motivated by the fantasy of establishing a ‘Trans-Afghan’ energy pipeline that would transport oil and gas from Central Asian to India, Pakistan and other markets, while bypassing Russia and Iran. The covert policy was candidly described in hearings in late 2000 before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on South Asia, where the role of US oil companies UNOCAL and ENRON was confirmed.
The policy only ended when it became clear that the Taliban was unwilling to play ball with US pipeline plans.
9/11 protection racket
After 9/11, a former head of Taliban intelligence, Mohammed Khaksar, gave sworn statements to US intelligence alleging that in 1998, Prince Turki (then Saudi intelligence chief) had arranged a deal with bin Laden. Saudi Arabia agreed to provide material aid to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, along with continued funding to bin Laden through Saudi charities and businesses. In return, al-Qaeda agreed not to attack Saudi targets.
According to a former senior US intelligence official, Saudi insiders told him that Salman, as governor of Riyadh, had provided financial support to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan throughout the 1990s, the same period in which the US was coordinating support for the Taliban.
Prince Turki and other Saudi officials strenuously deny these allegations, and to this day insist the Kingdom has played no role whatsoever in supporting Islamist terrorists.
Yet in the years leading up to 9/11, numerous US military and intelligence officials, including the late senior FBI counter-terrorism official, John O’Neill, complained that intelligence investigations into the terror ties of Saudi royals were being “blocked” for political reasons from Washington. There were “always constraints on investigating the Saudis,” which had worsened under the Bush administration.
According to a former senior State Department official specialising in the Balkans, Saudi elite financing was the pre-eminent factor in the rise of Islamist militant groups in the region, both before and after 9/11, until today. “We’re talking about a huge level of corruption,” he said on condition of anonymity. “This money doesn’t just flow to militants. It also buys off political leaders, including American and European government officials who should know better. Intelligence agencies have tracked billions of dollars of Saudi funding to extremists, but their investigations are consistently killed. The Bush administration was bad, but under the Obama administration, nothing has really changed.”
The Saudi link to 9/11 was flagged up by the 2002 Joint Congressional Inquiry into 9/11, whose official report was partly classified by the Bush administration. Among the classified sections, 28 pages of the report were described by the inquiry’s co-chair Senator Bob Graham as providing shocking confirmation of the role of senior Saudi officials in not just sponsoring al-Qaeda, but providing specific financial support to the 9/11 hijackers and the operation itself.
At a press conference on 7 January, Senator Graham, who retired in 2005, renewed his call for the Obama administration to declassify the 28 pages of the Congressional report in the public interest.
“Saudi Arabia was essentially a co-conspirator in 9/11,” he said in remarks largely blacked out by media, despite their explosive implications. Senior members of the Saudi royal family, he alleged, were operating a network of spies inside the US which aided and abetted at least two of the 9/11 hijackers, al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, both of whom had previously fought alongside al-Qaeda in Bosnia.
Senator Graham’s allegations based on the findings of the Congressional Inquiry are at odds with the claims of the later 9/11 Commission, which dismissed any organisational connection between 9/11 and Saudi Arabia – although the Commission did acknowledge Saudi Arabia as the main source of al-Qaeda funding.
Republican Congressman Walter Jones, who read the 28 pages in 2013, said that apart from specific evidence relating to 9/11, they also contain information on high-level Saudi relationships with the White House.
“What would you think the Saudis’ position would be,” said Senator Graham, “if they knew what they had done, they knew that the United States knew what they had done, and they also observed that the United States had taken a position of either passivity, or actual hostility to letting those facts be known?”
A federal directive, he surmised, was given to all agencies in the intelligence community to disguise Saudi activity on 9/11. He argued that due to US silence, the Saudis have “continued, maybe accelerated their support for one of the most extreme forms of Islam,” including “financial and other forms of support,” despite it being “extremely hurtful to the region of the Middle East, and a threat to the world.” Both al-Qaeda and the ‘Islamic State’ are a “creation of Saudi Arabia,” said Graham.
Graham also said that the classified 28 pages are “by no means the only example of where information that is important to understanding the full extent of 9/11 have also been withheld from the American people.” He accused both the Bush and Obama administrations of engaging in “a pattern of cover-up, which for 12 years, has kept the American people from a full understanding, of the most horrific attack against the United States in its history”.
Ongoing efforts by Western leaders to cozy-up with King Salman, despite the extensive evidence of militant financing by he and other senior members of the royal family, raise urgent questions about how serious our governments really are about fighting terror.
- Nafeez Ahmed PhD, is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the 'crisis of civilization.' He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: The new king had been Saudi defence minister and deputy prime minister since 2011 under his predecessor, King Abdullah (AFP)